Comparative military organization shows how organizational culture and bureaucratic politics affect defense planning.


The host of essays in recent months speculating about a rebuilt Coastal Artillery for the US Army requires some followup. The argument for coastal defenses clearly has some merit. If it’s reasonable to field ground-based anti-aircraft batteries, while still relying substantially on manned fighters to fight enemy aircraft, it seems reasonable to field ground-based anti-ship batteries, while still relying substantially on the fleet to fight the enemy fleet. The question of cost figures heavily in making the case. But relatively unargued is the question of why the Army per se should field those missiles. That question in turn leads to a broader issue of how organizational culture and bureaucratic politics are under-appreciated as potentially positive forces in defense planning.

Culture does affect cost: just note how less-expensive alternatives to standard ways of doing things haven’t recently seemed the American military way. But they’re more popular amongst those with lesser resources. On Foxtrot Alpha this past weekend, Tyler Rogoway observed that Russia’s new RS-24 nuclear missile trains will be, like their RS-23 predecessors decommissioned in 1993, second-strike complexes “somewhat akin to a ground-based nuclear ballistic missile submarine, [just] much less expensive to operate.” Of course, it’s the Strategic Rocket Forces and not the Russian Navy that operate them.
Thus has Eric Lindsay of the CSBA similarly argued for not just ground-based missiles, but their operation by ground forces—specifically, the US Army. So if it can stand a little friendly inter-service rivalry, should not the Navy be enthused about the Army backstopping its work south of Japan? Earnest J. King hasn’t been Chief of Naval Operations for some time, so the worst of the turf battles over who gets to operate past the coast may be behind us. But even then, we must ask why the Army, and not the Navy itself, or the Marine Corps, or even the Air Force?
Other countries have assigned coastal defenses to their navies, figuring that the maritime fight is a naval matter. Until 1999, Sweden’s Amphibious Corps was known as the Coastal Artillery; since 1902 it has been an arm of the Swedish Navy, equipped early on with heavy guns, and more recently with RBS-15 anti-ship missiles from Saab. The Finnish Navy is today still equipped with both fixed and mobile 100 and 130 mm guns, and truck-mounted RBS-15s. Across the Baltic, a second Coastal Defense Missile Battalion is standing up with the Polish Navy, as truck-mounted Naval Strike Missiles are delivered from Kongsberg.
Though primary responsibility for coastal defense long rested with the US Army, the law long provided Marines “to seize and defend advanced naval bases”. The Ryukus, we should observe, are about as advanced as a naval base could get. The USMC did organize (coastal) defense battalions before and during World War II, armed with coastal guns, anti-aircraft cannons, searchlights, radars, and machine guns. During the war, Marine bomber squadrons flew anti-ship missions. Since that war the Corps has been institutionally and culturally built around its infantry, with its artillery and aviation tailored largely for their support. If that maritime fight is best a naval matter, then might not the naval ground troops be handy for understanding the ground environment?
Perhaps only the Coast Guard, though seemingly so suitably named, lacks a serious case for this role. Ground-based missiles aren’t actually needed for defending Cape Hatteras, and the service’s otherwise valuable seafaring-but-constabulary culture might not mesh with a static-but-militant role. In assigning roles and missions, culture and experience arguably matter more than superficial similarities.
For to be fair, we should recall that the only US military service with recent experience operating ground-based cruise missiles is the Air Force. From 1983 to 1991, the USAF operated squadrons of truck-mounted BGM-109G Gryphon ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs, or “Glick-ems”) in England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Sicily. At all locations, the crews trained and exercised to avoid Soviet Spetsnaz and tank troops (well, maybe less in Sicily). The USAF’s new mission also briefly provided some field-oriented career diversity for those not on the flying track. Today, the USAF arguably has some very bored missileers who might appreciate the chance to serve forward. Typhoons excepted, the weather at Kadena is arguably better than at Minot.
Spitting the intermediate nuclear force between the Army’s Pershing IIs and the Air Force’s Gryphons reprised the inter-service competition of the 1950s, when the services strived respectively with their PGM-19 Jupiter and PGM-17 Thor ballistic missiles. As early as August 1957, Defense Secretary Charles Wilson averred that the duplication was uneconomical, and in November 1966, Defense Secretary McNamara assigned (for a time) all but short-ranged ballistic missiles to the Air Force. As Michael Armacost wrote back in 1969 about The Politics of Weapons Innovation: the Thor-Jupiter Controversy (Columbia University Press), the parallel efforts could be seen as duplicative rushes to obsolescence. Alternatively, they could be seen as healthy inter-service competition that spurred technological progress in longer-ranged missiles and an eventual organizational settlement.
Then in the 1980s, by pursuing its Double-Track Decision with parallel tracks of intermediate nuclear forces, NATO convinced the Soviets that the alliance wasdead serious about their opposition to those destabilizing RSD-10 Pioneer (SS-20) missiles, whatever the protestors said. Reagan could then bring Gorbachev into the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, one of those rare arms control agreements that eliminates a whole class of weapons. Ironically, it is that very INF Treaty that would limit American coastal defense missiles to a range of just 500 kilometers, only enough to shoot halfway across the East China Sea. While I wrote yesterday that the Japanese are not so bound, the limitation on the more offensively-minded Americans could actually serve a stabilizing function vis-à-vis the Chinese. Shoot from your coast towards the opposite side, but not over it.
These issues are bigger than the question of how to organize American coastal defense missile forces, an arm that doesn’t actually yet exist. There are all sorts of reasons that inter-service competition works so well, but salient is its utility in getting around cultural norms of what individual services do and do not want to trouble themselves to do. Strong still is the Bolshevik bureaucratic impulse for amalgamation: recall the editorial in Defense News last year, in which retired air marshal Mike Loh reissued the corporate complaints about military services other than the Air Force flying airplanes. We have all seen this movie: as recently as 2009, the USAF lobbied for control of the C-27J program, essentially so that the service could kill it in 2012. Which service gets which weapon really does matter.
So suggesting a new weapon, intended to fulfill a long-standing mission, but operated by a different service, inevitably raises the issue of the natural tension between bureaucratic duplication and competition. The American mantra that competition is good in industry should be more frequently followed by the admission that it’s often good in the military too. When the institutions’ futures and officials’ careers depend on keeping up with the other institutions and officials, better weapons get designed and better forces fielded. Just which service should get those cruise missiles, or any other shiny new thing, should not be so obvious.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.